Despite the “anything goes” mindset, hippies didn’t seem to have much of a sense of humor. They took themselves and their consciousness-raising bullshit way too seriously, and there’s very little evidence that any serious self-reflection took place. They poked fun at others, particularly political figures and straights, but rarely poked fun at themselves. Their frantic search for meaning outside the mainstream led them to transform their musical heroes into gods, and song lyrics into scripture. Some of those musicians took that role seriously, with John Lennon doing a complete about-face after satirizing it in “Glass Onion” and then catering to the needs of the flock.
I trace the decline of The Beatles directly to the moment when John Lennon abandoned his Goon Show roots for Yoko and narcissism. Epitaph: “He was a talented bloke suckered into believing he was a modern messiah.”
We all can take ourselves too seriously and believe that we’re the center of the universe, that our problems are the most important problems that anyone has ever faced, and that the world would be a much better place if everyone would just do things our way. This is a very unhealthy state of affairs, but fortunately for us, we have the perfect antidote, a sure-fire cure for headupyourassedness. It’s called the ability to laugh at yourself. And there’s nothing better to help you get refocused than great satire. As my friend Robert Morrow put it: “We spend most of our waking lives wearing façades of varying thicknesses, so when satire pierces through the layers of junk, it liberates the spirit.”
The Bonzo Dog Band had outstanding piercing skills.
The Doughnut in Granny’s Greenhouse is the second of four exceptional works of satiric art produced by the Bonzos in the late 1960s. I reviewed Keynsham some time ago and have been waiting for another opportunity to squeeze in another Bonzo review. This series on psychedelia gave me the perfect opportunity, as the record was released in 1968 in the midst of psychedelic madness. Even better, a good chunk of the record satirizes the musical pretentiousness of the era, especially the notion that human beings could transform themselves into savants simply by learning a few chords on a guitar.
The U. S. version of the album was called Urban Spaceman after the brilliant Paul McCartney-produced single that encapsulated the sterile existence of modern man. While the song is excluded from the U.K. version and replaced by “11 Mustachioed Daughters,” the album proper remains an energetic and innovative piece of fun. What I found most remarkable while listening to this album in the context of the psychedelic series was the realization that The Bonzo Dog Band consisted of musicians who were far superior to many of the “professionals” they satirized. Their work demanded a wide range of instrumentation, knowledge of multiple genres, acting skills and a keen ear to recent developments in the music scene. Their music also required more precise arrangements than the three-minute pop song, as one wrong move could spoil the punch lines or detract from the story.
A positively brilliant arrangement greets us in the opener, “We Are Normal.” The piece opens very quietly with processed low-register robotic voices claiming “We . . We are” over a background of warp effects, a stray saxophone run and someone randomly and lazily hammering something. As the warp effect gradually picks up in speed, the “We . . We are” is intoned in a higher pitch while we hear a stray guitar lick. The warp effects then seem to become heartbeats, followed by man-on-the-street interviews: “Here come some normals . . . they look like normal Hawaiians.” We hear a series of answers to the question, “Do you think you’re normal?” and we learn that normal people “like their food and they are very nice people.” In the background the dissonant, disconnected sounds become gradually louder until suddenly someone in the booth takes the whole sound package and presses the extreme fast forward button, turning our tranquil but bizarre scene into the sounds of human voices raised in a defiant revolutionary anthem:
We are normal and we want our freedom!
We are normal and we want our freedom!
Wir sind gewöhnlich, wir sind zufrieden (we are normal, we are satisfied)
We are normal and we dig Bert Weedon!
The build and explosion are terribly exciting, with Legs Larry Smith bashing the drums with all his might over the sounds of a triumphant orchestral organ. It is so positively ridiculous to hear bland normals united in passionate revolt for their freedom that I break out into the giggles every time I hear this song. If the powers that be make a list of the best all-time album openers, I’m going to be seriously pissed off if “We Are Normal” is not on the list.
Kids playing on a sunny beach and soothing travelogue music introduce “Postcard,” a Neil Innes-Vivian Stanshall duet with Innes taking the narrator role and Stanshall the role of cynical interpreter:
Innes: “Bored with bingo, we went for a swim”
Stanshall: “Fat sea cows with gorgonzola skin . . . semi-nude.”
Innes: “After lunch, we grabbed our trunks.”
Stanshall: “And we all got cramp.”
The music changes several times during the piece, reflecting boredom, forced relaxation and travel brochure imagery. As the song fades over the cliché line “We wish you were here,” we pray they don’t send us an invitation.
“Beautiful Zelda” is the first song to satirize contemporary music, and The Bonzos accomplish this more through the contrast of sound and lyrics than laugh lines. The fifteen-second opening is very early Pink Floyd, with all manner of effects uniting to announce something deep and important is about to follow. Unfortunately, what we hear is late-50’s teenage relationship issues made exotic through the use of sci-fi comic book conventions:
She’s broken all the super hearts of the
Super Heroes of the galaxy
So why does she wanna mess around with me?
The song then shifts to the kind of white-person doo-wop popular in malt shops of the Ozzie & Harriet era, which awakens our consciousness to the sheer pointlessness of many psychedelic sound effects.
More pointed and definitely superior is The Bonzos’ attack on the British blues scene, “Can Blue Men Sing the Whites.” Opening with a far stronger groove and lead guitar than offered by many bands of the time who used blues as filler material, Vivian Stanshall delivers the message from the first-person perspective of the self-anointed blues artiste:
Oh I’m lying in my bed, pull the silken sheets up tight
I gotta keep my strength up, gotta do a show tonight.
I have a sip of coffee while I’m taking in the news,
Don’t need to have a shave ’cause I gotta sing the blues.
No shit, man.
After a verse where our hero is chauffeured to a masseur where he can “maybe lose a little fat,” The Bonzos then proceed to use all the blues riff clichés known to man in the instrumental break, even spicing it up with a bit of Hohner blues harp. The build takes us to performance time, where Stanshall “gets down and dirty,” as the saying goes, satirizing both singer and audience:
And now it’s getting near the time I gotta make the scene,
I change out my dark-grey mohair suit, pull on my dirty jeans,
The band comes round to pick me up, I holler: “Hello boys,
I gotta mess my hair up and gotta make some noise.”
Can blue men sing the whites?
Or are they hypocrites for singing whoo-ooo0-oh?
(Spoken) Ladies and gentlemen, we’d like to do you a little number now that’s been very lucky for us from during the depression when everybody was very depressed. (Crowd cheers.)
The oh-it’s-so-tough-to-be-a-rock-star message contained in many songs of the era (and beyond) is far more powerful when delivered by The Bonzos, as they demonstrate with crystal clarity how empty that whining is. Gee, it’s tough to have to sleep in silken sheets, have a valet dress you and get to ride around in your brand-new Cadillac, smoking a big fat cigar. Taking it further, the song asks the more challenging question, “And why is a crowd of well-fed modern youth going apeshit over depressing songs from a time of massive suffering?” I love the blues, and I think I can answer the question, but it does give me pause. Is my love for Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters fomented by latent white chick guilt?
That’s what great satire is designed to do: force you to self-reflect.
The Bonzos tone down the satire and return to their traditional jazz roots for “Hello Mabel.” Opening with whistling (my favorite thing!) leading to a Mills Brothers-like hummed vocal background, we then hear Vivian Stanshall, likely seated at a table for two decked in a white tablecloth, delivering an awkward mating message while he lights a cigarette with a match, exhales and pops open and pours a glass of wine. After we hear the background singers end their vocalizations with a Doo-Doo WOP, Vivian takes a quick sip and launches into a classic dance floor number from the 1930s. The music is remarkably tight, with exceptional replication of 30’s jazz motifs, including a sweet vibraphone, muted trumpet and a male chorus/female vocal call-and-response: “HELLO MABEL!”/”Hiya fellas!” Emphasizing that details matter, the closer is pure Goon: “Shoodela bee, shoodela wasp, shoodela wah wah wah!”
Clocking in at forty-one seconds, “Kama Sutra” proves that economic satire can still pack a punch. Taking aim at the influence of the mystic East on rock ‘n’ roll music, The Bonzos use a Bobby Rydell-like arrangement with falsetto background singers over a chord structure that’s pure “Angel Baby” to deliver a number about the ancient Vedic text that became a kind of sex-by-numbers guide for horny hippie spiritualists. Over the background of “Kama-Kama-Kama-Sutra with me, yeah, yay,” Viv Stanshall slips on a Philly accent to deliver the brief lines: “We tried position 31/Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah/It was terrific fun/Uh-huh/In position 72/You were me, and I was you/Uh!” The effect is to expose spiritual pretentiousness by pointing out that the pursuit of nookie has always been the main message of rock ‘n’ roll, so quit trying to make it more than it is by dressing it up in a Nehru jacket.
Honing in further on the pretentiousness that had begun to pervade rock ‘n’ roll thanks to the psychedelic movement, next up is “Humanoid Boogie,” a superbly constructed expose of the business side of rock that made all that love, peace and happiness possible. Essentially, the song is a pitch for a new dance craze, “The Humanoid Boogie.” The lyrics are loaded with capitalist imagery, years before Pink Floyd would transmit a similar message in “Have a Cigar.”
Well, the Humanoid Boogie’s got the humanoid hip-types
Jumpin’ and-a jivin’
Burnin’ out their energy cells like an infrared hot dog
Motorbike heartbeats flutter to the stutter
Of the humanoid heart-throb sobbin’ out a tickertape tune
By the light of the moon
Bleep bleep keep rockin’ daddy, do the stroll
Because the Humanoid Boogie’s full of humanoid rock and roll
In that single verse the Bonzos nailed multiple targets. They remind the hipsters that regardless of how cool they think they are, they’re just another market niche in the eyes of the guys who run the show. Next they remind us that pop songs are often products of mass production with certain key components that make people buy music—cliché lines like “by the light of the moon,” references to dance crazes, singers who evoke a certain vulnerability, and veiled allusions to naughty language and sinful acts. Neil Innes’ tone is perfect; he sounds like a salesman doing a canned elevator pitch (hence the loud opening cry, “HI, THERE!”). And as a faithful unquestioning capitalist, he never lets you forget what the music is all about:
The Humanoid Boogie’s gonna get to number one in the
Cha-cha-cha-cha-charts voted by the
People-eople-eople-eople-eople-eople of the record-buying publicoid
Programmed to a multiple response ratio
It’s a wow, it’s a gas, it’s a Wall Street Crash
Like cigar ash
The experimental bent of the psychedelic era is sent up in “Trouser Press,” where Roger Ruskin Spear really does play a solo on a pickup-enhanced trouser press. The gay-male intro is a bit dated, but the choral section is full of delightful puns (“You’ve got me in creases . . . Trouser it to me”) and Vivian Stanshall’s recitation of the closing credits is a dadaistic hoot: “The programme you have been listening to is a one-act play in eight parts by G. G. Dunnett for eighteen albatrosses and a reservoir. The part of Old Bill was played by a frying pan. The other parts of Old Bill were played by Sir Rupert Carpet who found a pair of swimming trunks on his head . . . ”
We return to the normals for “My Pink Half of the Drainpipe,” one of my favorite Bonzo numbers of all time. The accordion-enhanced arrangement calls up images of l’entre-deux-guerres Paris sidewalk cafés, but the scene is suburban Britain, where Vivian Stanshall plays the role of irritated neighbor. The tone of his vocal is somewhere between a drone and a sotto voce muttering as if you’re hearing the thoughts in his head while his tedious neighbor drones on and on:
You who speak to me across the fence
Of common sense
How your tomato plant will win a prize,
won’t that be nice,
And by the way, how’s your wife?
Your holidays were spent in Spain
You went by train
You’ll go again
To counter the perception that we’re dealing with an insufferably arrogant individual dripping with self-importance, his neighbor makes an appearance, leading us to take Vivian’s side of the argument:
Have you seen me bullfight poster on the wall?
Do you know the ‘appy memory it recalls?
Here’s a photograph of me and my son, Ted
That’s me cousin with his hanky on his head!
We booked in at our ‘otel just after two
And met a family from Bradford that we knew.
That’s the conversational equivalent of a root canal, so the narrator’s distaste is now fully understandable. Unfortunately, all he has to cling to in this shared suburban existence is the trivial and meaningless:
My pink half of the drainpipe
Separates next door from me
My pink half of the drainpipe
Belongs to me!
Later he changes that “me” to “moi,” in another attempt to reinforce his superior status. In the final rendition he gives the vocal equivalent of a raspberry by singing the ending “you” on a terribly dissonant low note:
My pink half of the drainpipe
I may paint it blue
My pink half of the drainpipe
Keeps me safe from
After an extraordinarily well-executed nursery rhyme passage where we hear the neighbor ga-ga-ing with his grubby little newborn, the narrator launches into a detached rant that ends on an off-key held note on “so THERE” that seems to go on forever. What makes the song a belly-shaking laugher is the combination of absurd pettiness and Vivian Stanshall’s remarkable ability to channel that pettiness into a marvelous vocal performance.
“Rockaliser Baby” is the final satire of the music scene, and this time the target is the advent of the suite as a common feature in rock music. Most of the time, suites were just a bunch of bits of undeveloped songs thrown together for good or ill, and Innes and Stanshall do a superb job shining a light on what often became a nefarious practice by musicians who didn’t know what the fuck they were doing. The basic structure of the song consists of Innes singing several cliche-ridden verses that could be cut and pasted into any rock song designed for mass consumption. This meaningless pap is “enhanced” by adding irrelevant passages designed to fool the untutored listener that they’re listening to something of incalculable significance. The first is fucking brilliant: a shift from the rock pattern to descending chords where the vocalists sing Eastern-tinged “aaahs” followed by the piano crescendo from “A Day in the Life.” Ouch! The second is a staged drug bust, an event that raised the status of every musician lucky enough to get snatched by the fuzz. The next follows a transition filled with nonsense language (“I’ll huff and I’ll puff and that’s enough to burst your bag, sir”), which fades into a quieter passage marked by reflective piano and the sound of footsteps walking through the sound field. The lowering of volume telegraphs the arrival of an important message. Here it is:
In September, 1937, I bought my wife a new electric iron for eight and sixpence.
She’s still using it everyday and it’s never needed repair.
I guarantee you that if The Beatles had thrown those lines into the middle of the Abbey Road suite, scholars and fanatics would still be probing the words and the grammatical structure for further evidence of McCartney’s untimely death. They’d bring in numerologists to analyze the significance of 1937. Should we total it or take the numbers separately, multiply them against eight and sixpence—-or line them up and play them backward?
“Rhinocratic Oaths” is a series of tales of the normals, translated through a Dada-esque lens. The secret agent background music provides a perfect backdrop for Vivian Stanshall’s brief and bizarre narratives of life as a normal. My two favorites are reproduced here.
Mrs. Betty Pench was playing the trombone when she heard a knock on the door. “I wonder who that is at 11 o’clock in the morning?” she thought, and cautiously opened the door. Instead of the turbaned ruffian she expected she found a very nice young man. “Mrs. Pench, you’ve won the car contest, would you like a Triumph Spitfire or three thousand in cash?” She smiled. Mrs. Pench took the money. “What will you do with it all, not that it’s any of my business?”, he giggled. “I think I’ll become an alcoholic,” said Betty.
Much as he hated argument or any kind of unpleasantness, Ron Shirt thought things had gone too far when, returning from a weekend in Clacton, he found that his neighbour had trimmed the enormous hedge dividing their gardens into the shape of a human leg. Enraged and envious beyond belief, Ron seized his garden shears and clipped his white poodle Leo into a coffee table. “That’ll fix it”, thought Ron, but he was wrong. The following Wednesday his neighbour had his bushy waist-length hair cut and permed into a model of the Queen Elizabeth and went sailing. Everywhere he went people said “Hooray!” Sometimes you just can’t win.
The neurotic leanings of people we define as normal have rarely been so clearly exposed. People! We always need to recalibrate normal!
The UK album ends with “11 Mustachioed Daughters,” a very long theatrical track about a cult of witches. This is the only track that fails to grab me: it’s too long and the object of the satire is unclear. I would have much preferred to hear “I’m the Urban Spaceman,” so let’s listen to it now!
The album title is a euphemism for an outhouse, echoing Duchamp’s use of a urinal for his lost Dada masterpiece, Fountain. The Bonzos filled their work with references to Dadaists, absurdist playwrights like Ionesco and more cynical contemporaries like Joe Orton (What the Butler Says is mentioned in “Postcard”). I don’t see this as artistic snobbery; I think they felt a kinship with people who saw life as something twisted into meaninglessness by arbitrary conventions held in place by humans with exceptional skill in denying reality. Artists often have to serve as the voice of reason in a world gone mad, and it’s only natural that these artists would have found validation and encouragement in the work of others who had also challenged the status quo.
There were indeed other voices of reason during the psychedelic era. In the States, The Mothers of Invention and The Fugs satirized both the dominant and alternative cultures, and a few years later, The National Lampoon would completely bury the Woodstock generation with their musical send-up, Lemmings.
Right now, though, I’m terribly thankful for The Bonzos. So far, they’re the only sane people I’ve encountered on this trip through hippy-dippy land.